Yukon River king run projected to be grim

January 25, 2009 

State biologists are expecting another grim year for Yukon River king salmon.

Fish managers are telling villagers in the region to brace for another poor run. They also are seeking ideas for getting more fish across Canada's border.

"We are projecting a below average to poor chinook run in 2009," Steve Hayes, Yukon area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said in a teleconference with fishermen on the upper Yukon River. "There is unlikely to be any directed commercial chinook harvest in the main stem Yukon, and we believe subsistence fishing will need to be reduced at the beginning of the season."

Hayes said managers on both sides of the border are still working on a management strategy for the upcoming season.

Some subsistence fishermen suggest closing all king salmon fishing this season and in future years to help rebuild what they say is a dwindling king run.

"We need to lay off kings up and down the river both commercially and for subsistence," said Andy Bassich, a subsistence fishermen from the village of Eagle. "Every fish counts right now."

Bassich said he will encourage other upper Yukon fishermen to target chum salmon rather than kings this summer. Kings are traditionally the primary food fish in the Yukon, while chums are fed to sled dogs.

"One thing the department and (fisheries association) can do is begin to educate fishermen and shift the subsistence harvest from chinook salmon to chum salmon," Bassich said. "It's perfectly good fish for consumption food."

Biologists say something needs to be done to get more kings to their Canadian spawning grounds. The number of fish to cross the border has failed to meet goals set out in the U.S.-Canada Yukon River Salmon Agreement -- a treaty between the two countries -- for the past two years.

According to studies, about half the kings that enter the Yukon River -- an average run used to be 250,000 -- and are caught by subsistence fishermen in Alaska originate in Canada. But fewer fish have been reaching the border.

Of some 180,000 kings that returned to the Yukon last year, only about 38,000 made it to the border, according to sonar counts in Eagle, about 100 miles from the border.

That was about 7,000 fish shy of the 45,000 objective. Just under 40,000 of the 175,000 kings that returned to the Yukon made it to the border in 2007. That was about 3,000 fewer fish from the border passage goal, which fluctuates slightly each year.

Managers aren't sure why fewer kings are returning. King bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock industry, changing ocean conditions and a warming climate have been mentioned as possible factors.

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